You like the line at your favorite coffee shop? Ok, besides the cute barista, you can do better: start by grinding your own beans, then check back with Gear Patrol for other suggestions for stepping up to the big leagues. The journey from coffee hack to ambrosia connoisseur begins with freshly ground java in your French press, drip, or espresso machine. A quick primer, and then on to our picks:
Grinders are distinguished by consistency, range of granularity, and low-temperature, low-noise operation. Your baseline grinder generates higher temperatures and coarser, irregular grinds — and sounds like a small war. Fineness of grind is essential to pulling an espresso shot that has the characteristic “crema” and extracts the full, distinguishing essential oils that set apart good java from dreck (read the sidebar below for more on this). Consistency is also critical for replicating quality coffee, shot to shot.
Avoid spinning blades that chop your beans — you want a conical burr grinder that crushes and pulverizes the coffee to the required fineness (coarser for French press, the finest moondust for Turkish coffee, with espresso a few settings less fine). Low speed trumps high speed, as high temperatures generated in the latter change the flavor and character of the resulting grind. If the machine has a strong enough motor to power through the beans, reduction gears are unnecessary — for a less powerful motor, gearing turns high RPM into low speed torque. $150 is a price point where the requisite specs come together to produce the fineness necessary, without tasting-spoiling temps. The exact cost and specs are up to you — but here are ten great places to start (and very possibly end) your search.
A hearty thanks to the good folks at Clive Coffee for their expertise and assistance in producing this buying guide. If you need top-tier coffee gear, look no further.
Hario Coffee Hand Grinder
Most Economical: The Hario gets the job done — it turns beans into grinds, it’s cheap and it’s portable. However, it’s not going to meet the demands of espresso lovers or high volume consumers. While it has adjustable conical ceramic burrs and is dishwasher safe, the settings are not marked. It’s as slow or fast as your ability to turn the crank. Sure, you’ll get ground coffee suitable for a French Press or drip, anywhere, anytime. You’ll also get forearms like Popeye’s.
Breville Smart Grinder
Best Technology for the Money: Stepping up to the Breville not only saves you from askance looks at your forearms, it gives you ease of use (and cleaning). While you won’t have the full grinding range of other models here, you get 25 settings, automatic dosage, and airtight storage of your ground coffee — important for freshness. The feed shoot is likely to clog with finer grinds, but simple cleaning makes that a minor inconvenience. Along with an affordable price tag, that makes the Breville our “smart” pick for the neophyte brewer.
Gaggia MDF Coffee Grinder
Best for Cost-conscious Espresso Drinkers: Gaggia comes with a long legacy of excellence and renowned durability in the espresso regime. Their MDF grinder is a solid, reliable, stepped grinder that may outlast you. The 120W motor comes with reduction gears for lower speed, lower temperature grinding, and 34 settings to provide a good range of grinds. A pull-lever doser dispenses directly into espresso portafilters, though it makes dosing a slight challenge for home users who want to make other types of coffee. When this machine arrives in the box “dirty”, don’t fret — Gaggia test-drives each one before it ships.
Best Bang for your Buck: Baratza grinders are located at the beginning of the prosumer range, and the Virtuoso is your best option in the $200 region for everything from espresso to French press. While the deadman switch, which forces users to continuously press the “grind” button, might be annoying for drip brewers (and the small catch bin can be frustrating when filling a 12-cup coffee maker), the professional-grade conical burrs and powerful 480W DC motor turn at a relatively slow 450 RPM, which equals cool, tasty beans.
Best for Quiet Lovers: Savoring a warm cup in the solitude of a quiet morning before the rest of the animals stir goes out the window with the operation of industrial machinery. The Rocky will stir nary a mouse: this classic grinder and its heavy-duty motor is 50% quieter than most other low speed/reduction gear models. Fifty-five settings will match even the most particular barista; durability ensures you pass it down to your kids. Go with the doserless version — the doser model is not adjustable and difficult to clean.
Every type of brewing method requires a particular grind for best results. While finding the ideal setting — particularly on stepless grinders — eventually brews down to personal tastes, these general guidelines should help focus your highly caffeinated gaze in the right direction.
Coarse (also includes Extra Coarse)
Distinct and large particles are easily discernible.
Similar to: Heavily grained kosher salt.
Use with: Cold Brew (extra coarse), French Press, Cupping, Percolators.
Medium (also includes Medium Coarse and Medium Fine)
A gritty consistency, individual grinds can still be distinguished and separated by hand (though it’s not exactly easy).
Similar to: Sand.
Use with: Cafe Solo (Medium Coarse), Drip Brewers, Chemex (Medium Coarse), Pourover Cones (Medium Fine), Vacuum Pots/Siphon Brewers (Medium Fine).
Fine (also includes Extra Fine)
Very smooth to the touch, hard to see individual grinds with the naked eye, but they can still be felt.
Similar to: Slightly finer than granulated sugar, but not quite powder.
Use with: Espresso, some cone coffee makers.
The finest grind possible, feels like powder and no grains should be visible.
Similar to: Flour or talc powder.
Use with: Turkish.
Baratza Vario W
Best for Weight Watchers: What do you gain at this price range? A high-end grinder ($450) that many say bests machines costing four times as much. The W version of the Vario includes a scale for precise measuring — within 0.2 grams. While grinds tend to adhere to the plastic catch bin, a simple touch to something metal discharges the static buildup and allows the grinds to slide right out. With more than 200 grind pre-sets, ceramic German-made burrs and a small kitchen-friendly footprint, you’ll have a line out your door that will have Starbucks crying “monopoly”.
Best for the Long Haul: Mazzer’s smallest grinder is a full-blown commercial-grade grinder that will last a lifetime or two. While small by industry standards, at 22.5 pounds with a 1.3-pound-capacity hopper, “miniature” is not the adjective your guests will use. The Swedish hardened steel burrs offer infinite stepless grind adjustment, allowing you to dial in the perfect granularity for your espresso maker. The adjustable portafilter doser gives you similar ability to tweak your grind, though since the doser is not removeable, the Mini is best for the espresso drinker who rarely drips his caffeine.
Best for the Urban Flavor Purist: Smaller than the Mazzer Mini at 15 inches, the Pasquini will fit under your kitchen cabinets — a must for your
small quaint city apartment. This rock-crushing grinder combines a direct drive motor and huge 55mm grinding heads to churn the toughest cherries into the finest powder with the least flavor-sapping heat. Easy cleaning and 25 settings make the Moka the opposite of a daily grind.
MACAP M4 Grinder
Best for the Precision Grinder:The 58mm burrs on this precise, professional-grade machine are powered by a 250W motor and stepless worm drive, which offers infinite adjustments and the torque to make quick work of a mess of beans. At 17 inches tall, the M4 still fits under most cabinets — and at 20 pounds, it won’t walk off your counter. Some lament the shelf in the catchment which causes grinds to get stuck, but it’s a minor inconvenience for the quality of grinds that you’ll get.
Compak K10 WBC
Best Commercial-Grade Super Grinder: The Compak is the type of machine the pros use. It’s got the power (760W!), the precision and the adjustability to produce quality ground coffee and lots of it. With a hopper that holds 3.75 pounds of coffee (that’s the really BIG bag of beans), you can maintain a steady stream of caffeine bullets as fast as your party guests can place their orders. However, the K10 is all manual, so no mingling for whoever gets tagged
aspiring actor barista.
Bonus: Anfim Super Caimano Espresso Grinder
Best for the Time Nazi: You’ll find the Anfim in your artisan coffee shop. It has one of the most technologically advanced timers found today on a grinder — measuring your dose to 1/100th a second. With gigantic 75mm hardened steel burrs with titanium blades and 0.6 HP motor, you could use the Super Caimano to power your sink disposal or open your garage door. The doser on the Anfim is legendary; it started a whole trend towards “never touch the coffee” because it doses a nice cone into a portafilter basket. At 22 inches tall, it won’t fit under cabinets, but it’s small by commercial standards, taking up about two thirds the space of the Compak K10, even with the 4.4 pound hopper. While the grind selection isn’t stepless, it does offer 90 subtle fineness changes.